The Dangers of Organizational Amnesia

March 12, 2014 Darcy Jacobsen

Brain as a machineMy good friend Geno has a cynical take on organizational memory. “Stick your arm in a bucket of water,” he says, “And then pull it out. The impression you leave is how much of a mark you leave on a company.”

I disagree with Geno’s philosophy—I would argue that most of us leave a tremendous impact on companies we work for—in ways we’re not even aware of. But he’s right on one count: Organizational memories are often all too short, and without a central way to record that impact and capture knowledge and individual contributions, they become lost to time.

This has never been more true than it is today. It is ironic that technology has provided us with phenomenal tools for communication and connection, but much of it has also sped up our work lives and made knowledge and memory at work much more ephemeral. Add to that higher rates of turnover and more mobility in organizations—particularly among younger workers. We find that there are fewer and fewer curators of “tribal knowledge” and more and more of our knowledge capital is at risk of slipping through the cracks.

Why do we need organizational memory? According to Dr. Jeff Conklin from the CogNexus Institute, “Knowledge is the key asset of a knowledge organization. Organizational memory extends and amplifies this asset by capturing, organizing, disseminating, and reusing the knowledge created by its employees.” In other words, organizational memory is a net for everything that is happening to make your company successful. Without it, you suffer from organizational amnesia.

Says Jeff Conklin: “Organizations have a valuable asset in the informal knowledge that is the daily currency of their knowledge workers, but this asset usually lives only in the collective human memory and thus is poorly preserved and managed.”

In today’s companies, when people change jobs, valuable data is irretrievably lost—sort of like my friend Geno’s water bucket. Here’s one example: You get a new manager a month before your performance review. Just how substantive could that review be, when your previous manager took with her all of her knowledge about your performance? In the absence of some other mechanism for capturing organizational memory, then answer has to be: not very.

People’s memories are just a risky place to store the knowledge of your organization. Yet that’s exactly where many companies keep it. Conklin divides corporate memory into two types: formal and informal knowledge. The former refers to things like manuals and documents, which he points out we tend to preserve very well.

But informal knowledge is the information we learn when we create that formal knowledge. “If formal knowledge is the foreground,” says Conklin, “this knowledge is the background.” Informal knowledge is what we find so hard to capture in a lasting way. The reasons for this, suggests Conklin, are twofold:

  • We have a culture that is focused on deliverables: Our culture has come to value results – the output of the work process – far above the process itself, and to emphasize results over “soft” things like relationships. When it comes time to preserve, that soft information is discarded.
  • We lack the right tools to capture the journey:  The way we preserve knowledge tends to “create the illusion that finished knowledge products (in the form of documents) spring forth from the word processor polished and complete,” says Conklin. Little attention is paid to the effort and process of getting there.

“An organizational memory that consists only of formal knowledge is bare and lifeless,” says Conklin. “It also lacks the history and context behind the formal documents, and as a result, the organizational “memory” is essentially an immense heap of disconnected things, a giant organizational attic.”

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What is needed, therefore, is a tool that can help to re-connect employee experiences and organize their activity with a larger context, and in a sharable and comprehensive way. (The tool that can answer this need, of course, will be clear to anyone who is familiar with social recognition.)

Conklin’s opinion is echoed by Rob Cross and Lloyd Baird from MIT’s Sloan School, who say “Truly improving business performance […] demands more than simply putting more knowledge into databases; it requires leveraging the many ways that knowledge can migrate into an organization and strengthen business performance.”

An organization’s memory, according to their MIT study, resides in five different places:

“An organization’s memory resides in the minds of its employees and in the relationships that employees tap on an ongoing basis to accomplish work. Memory is also stored in repositories such as computer databases and file cabinets. Memory can also be embedded in work processes and in product or service offerings that have evolved over time and reflect lessons learned from an organization’s past experiences.”

According to that study there are two important pieces to relationship-based memory that can be captured:

  1. Social capital: Time spent interacting on work tasks establishes a sense of reciprocity and trust among colleagues. This social capital encourages employees to turn to colleagues to get useful assistance or advice about future initiatives.
  2. Knowledge mapping: By working closely together, colleagues build an understanding of each person’s particular knowledge and skills. This understanding allows employees to seek out the right peers for information in the future.

That MIT study asks “Are You Feeding or Starving Organizational Memory?” and offers a series of questions to ask yourself, in order to get the most out of all five forms of organizational memory.  Here is a sampling of the questions they ask about individual and relationship driven memory. They might be worth asking in your company.

  • Do the teams in your organization have mechanisms for reflecting and learning from experience?
  • Does supervisor or peer feedback in the experience improve experiential learning?
  • Do team members have opportunities to learn about the knowledge and skills of others in the team?
  • Do managers encourage collaborative staffing opportunities?
  • Do employees have an opportunity to learn from people outside their own team (e.g., to participate in a community of practice)?

All of this resonates powerfully for us in the employee recognition business. Eric Mosley has talked in his book The Crowdsourced Performance Review about the growing practice of lifelogging—where people record every aspect of their day to day lives. Mosley suggests that in the same manner recognition data might hold the key to not only collecting, but sifting through and preserving this sort of informal and relationship-driven knowledge data and encouraging the sort of cross-functional sharing that Cross and Baird are talking about.

“Imagine that your business could record all the moments of real innovation, and starting from the moment that innovation appeared, move out in concentric circles to examine what led to that innovation,” Mosley suggests. “Consider how intelligent retrieval of every moment might change a business. Executives could ask, “Who were the key people in our iPhone/Android app project? That project was hugely successful; how did the people interact? What did we do that we should replicate? And how did that project compare with the less successful initiatives?” Even two years after the fact, data analytics could delve into the collective “memory bank” and call up everyone who was involved.”

Social recognition data is a fantastic way, then, to collect that critical data on social capital and to map the knowledge in your organization on a broader scale. It also creates a cache of performance data that can inform annual reviews and milestone celebrations—collecting positive feedback that is no longer dependent on the memory or presence of any one individual.

Great recognition becomes a form of business lifelogging that forms the memory of your organization, not only because it collects critical knowledge on the past, but because it becomes a resource for social sharing of that information that makes your workers more collaborative and productive today.

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